July 4, 2002
Fight Over UC Funds
Divesting of investments in corporations doing business in Israel becomes a hot topic at UCLA and Berkeley.
Pro-Israel faculty at UCLA have launched a petition drive opposing a campaign to get the University of California system to divest itself of investments in corporations doing business in the Jewish state.
The petition comes in response to another faculty petition urging the UC system to withdraw the investments because of what it calls Israel's "human rights violations."
Distributed throughout the UC system, the original divestment campaign last month called upon UC to withdraw some $54 million in corporate investments. "We believe that our university ought to use its influence -- political and financial -- to encourage the United States government and the government of Israel to respect the rights of the Palestinian people," reads the divestment document signed by more than 165 faculty members.
Some signatories compared Israel's record with that of South Africa: "Divestment worked for South Africa, why not Israel?" wrote Susan M. Ervin-Trip of UC Berkeley.
During the apartheid-era, many American college students protested university support of U.S. corporations doing business in South Africa. The divestment movement was crucial in undermining the racist South African regime.
Many UCLA faculty members and students were appalled by comparisons of Israel to South Africa. "I thought it was reprehensible; it didn't help the course of peace or serve any useful purpose to either side," said Professor Steven L. Spiegel, associate director of the Burkle Center for International Relations.
"The attempt to compare [Israel] to South Africa is absurd, inaccurate and false," Spiegel said.
UCLA Hillel drafted the counterpetition. It was based on a similar one started at Harvard and MIT that garnered over 6,000 signatures.
"We, University of California's faculty, staff, students and alumni who support peace in the Middle East, oppose the misguided divestment petition calling for punitive actions by the U.S. government and our universities against the state of Israel," the UCLA version reads.
"A major purpose of the counterpetition is to demonstrate that there is broad opposition to divestment," said Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, director of UCLA Hillel. Seidler-Feller said the counterpetition has garnered some 160 signatures.
Many UCLA professors who signed the counterpetition believe that the original pro-divestment petitioners represent a minority of the UC faculty.
"I don't think it is very controversial, because a very tiny group is making a lot of noise," Spiegel said. "There is not serious support for [divestment]."
It is difficult to measure the effect that both petitions have had on the atmosphere at UCLA, because they were circulated at the end of the academic year. But the controversy is indicative of how much the Middle East situation has invaded the campus.
"The original petition is a manifestation of a new political activism on college campuses," said David N. Myers, professor of Jewish history at UCLA. He added that he doesn't believe this political activism is anti-Semitic.
Myers cited a recent survey on anti-Semitic attitudes by the Anti-Defamation League that said while 17 percent of Americans hold views about Jews that are "unquestionably anti-Semitic," only three percent of U.S. college and university students and five percent of faculty fall into the most anti-Semitic category.
As for the students, "I think they are glad that Hillel has taken the stance and has put the petition out there," said Robin Levine, UCLA Hillel program associate. "They're glad that UCLA Hillel has taken the initiative."
Furthering Hillel's efforts, students at UC Berkeley are creating a Web site that will streamline opposition by allowing online signing of the counterdivestment petition. The Web site is the work of the UC Justice Campaign, a grass-roots community project of the Akiva Movement, a student-run human rights and democratic values campus action group.
"It is not a pro-Israel action," said David Weinberg, director of the UC Justice Campaign. "We want students and other activists to feel that they can sign this and not be associated with an agenda."
In addition to online reading and signing of the petition, the site will offer downloadable hard-copy petition forms, a page where all signatures can be viewed, a signature counter, a frequently-asked-questions page and links to relevant articles.
"If we don't do this kind of action, policy is going to be swayed forever," Weinberg said.